photo recon Cover

Photo Recon Became Fighter Duty

Marine Observation Squadron 251 in World War II

Steven K. Dixon

McFarland Publishing, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2016, 252 pages

Book Review published on: November 15, 2019

In Photo Recon Became Fighter Duty, author Steven K. Dixon set out to write a thorough World War II history of the VMFA-251, a squadron he had served in during the seventies. His quest led him down many paths: a historical society in Vermont, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, countless hours peering through official documents in the National Archives, and a host of other research avenues. In the end, though, Dixon’s high hopes of putting together a comprehensive squadron history were apparently stymied by poor record keeping characteristic of aviation units deployed to the South Pacific, especially those in the Guadalcanal campaign, and he ended up writing not much more than a “diary of the squadron’s accomplishments during the war.” This is an accurate description.

Marine Observation Squadron 251, known as VMO 251 or more simply as the 251, came into existence on 1 December 1941. However, an observation squadron it was not. Organized as a land-based fighter squadron and equipped with the stubby Grumman F4F Wildcat, VMO 251 flew exactly one photo recon mission with its one F4F-7 Photo Reconnaissance Wildcat during the war.

Dixon describes how the unit transformed into a fighter squadron beginning when Vice Adm. John McCain, who commanded all shore-based aircraft, decided to scrap the reconnaissance mission. McCain directed VMO 251’s commander, Maj. John Hart, to get his crews ready for fighter duty, which set off a flurry of training and reorganization in the unit. McCain’s decision came as no surprise, for in the early days of the war, the formidable Japanese war machine seemed unstoppable on all fronts in all domains—land, sea, and air—requiring every ounce of strength to resist. Guadalcanal, America’s first campaign in the Pacific, proved no exception.

Dixon captures the extraordinary measures members of VMO 251 took to get their planes into action during those desperate hours, from uncrating their Wildcats after their long voyage to finding half their parts and most of their tools missing, to island hopping to get into range of the enemy. Finally, they reached Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field, home what became known as the Cactus Air Force.

The squadron found itself in a bitter contest with the Japanese on every strike mission, facing determined protective antiaircraft fire, ranging from heavy machine guns to large caliber antiaircraft cannons, and often in aerial combat with Japanese A6M Zero fighter planes. The author describes the adaption of a new aerial tactic called the “Thatch Weave” that allowed the slower Wildcat to compete against the more maneuverable Zero but required the pilot to fight the plane to his front and ignore the enemy on his tail; this took some nerve.

Crowded airfields—well beyond safe capacity—relentless monsoon rains, potted mud slick runways, a determined enemy, and mostly, an unrelenting flight schedule exhausted the pilots and led to a parade of crack-ups and tragic losses in the air. By today’s standards, these losses would be deemed senseless and completely unacceptable. However, in World War II, it was an exercise of sweeping the wreckage to the side, bring the next man up, and continuing to take the fight to the enemy. By battle’s end on Guadalcanal in early 1943, VMO 251 had achieved thirty-two aerial victories and earned a trip back to the United States. Upon its return to theater seven months later, the unit would not see another enemy aircraft for the rest of the war, much less shoot one down.

Dixon next describes VMO 251’s return to the United States in June 1942, where it traded its F4F Wildcats for the newly fielded F6 Corsair. He chronicles the unit’s seven months of training, drawing attention to the significant number of crack-ups that left behind scores of damaged and destroyed airplanes and worse, a large number of pilot fatalities. In November 1943 alone, the squadron lost seven pilots.

VMO 251 returned to combat duty in the Solomon Islands in March 1944. Operating out of Bougainville, the squadron settled into a routine of flying strike missions against enemy forces in and around Rabaul, a major Japanese base. Adapting the idiom wash-rinse-repeat to bomb-strafe-repeat best describes the nature of combat during this campaign as well as the unit’s participation in the Liberation of the Philippines. By this time in the war, Japanese air forces had ceased to exist where VMO 251 operated. With total air supremacy, the Marines launched their F4U Corsairs almost every day, sometimes two in a day, on strike missions against suspected targets. Occasionally they faced light antiaircraft fire, but they mostly attacked with impunity, targeting huts, trucks, or maybe some unfortunate Japanese soldiers caught in a canoe.

Dixon describes how aircraft and crew losses continued to mount during these last phases of the war, sometimes due to poor weather or bad luck but mostly because of exhausted pilots executing poor procedures. He pays tribute to the pilots with anecdotes, photographs, and their personal stories, simultaneously providing the reader with a glimpse into the harsh conditions under which land-based air units in the South Pacific operated.

In spite of all the challenges he faced in his research, Dixon is able to summarize the results of every mission to include the target, the payload, numbers of aircraft flown and by whom, battle damage assessments, and detailed descriptions of friendly losses. While reading Photo Recon Became Fighter Duty, I found myself grinding through the unit’s missions day after day, and I can only imagine the tremendous strain on the men who carried them out. Dixon achieves his goal of bringing to light the wartime accomplishments of VMO 251 and many other squadrons like them. He shows how the marines of the 251 never let the pressure off the Japanese or allowed them to reorganize; instead, the 251 bombed and strafed them into oblivion. Photo Recon Became Fighter Duty will inform the reader seeking situational understanding of the flight missions against Japanese ground forces in sustained combat during World War II.

Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas